Public Security In El Salvador: The Slide Towards Re-Militarization – Analysis
By Frederick Mills
The appointment of retired military officers to public security leadership positions over the past three months is being seen by many as a serious challenge to democracy in El Salvador. President Mauricio Funes argues that these appointments are legal, that they have not been done under either internal or external pressure, and that they constitute an appropriate response to public insecurity. There is indeed a genuine and intense preoccupation regarding security in El Salvador. A November 2011 poll by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUOP) found that 76.4% of respondents believe that crime increased in 2011, as compared to 2010. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (4,085 homicides, 66 per 100,000 persons in 2010). Gang violence and transnational organized crime threaten both public security, such as the ability to conduct commerce and provide transportation services, as well as citizen security, such as the ability of individuals to exercise their civil rights. Since the exercise of civil rights is a condition of democratic governance, this level of crime is in itself a threat to democracy in El Salvador.
On account of this pervasive insecurity, Salvadorans desperately seek after a solution. Previous “get tough” policies, the so called “heavy-handed” approach to law enforcement (Mano Dura, initiated in 2003), and the Super Mano Dura (starting 2004), have increased the number of arrests and incarcerations of alleged offenders, but have failed to rein in the gang problem; Salvadoran prisons are filled to over capacity and the gangs have adjusted their tactics. Even the limited deployment of army units to assist in policing Salvadoran streets and prisons has not had the desired impact on crime. Both the United States government and authorities in El Salvador acknowledge that the increasing number of criminal deportees from the United States back to their Central American venues has exacerbated the problem. For these reasons yet another “new” offensive against crime is in the works for El Salvador. This new offensive builds on the strategy of hemispheric security cooperation and the integration of anti-crime and prevention strategies. But here is the problem: While there is significant public support for Funes’ appointment of a “retired” general as the director of the National Civil Police (PNC), such appointments of career military officers to senior public security positions dangerously erodes the separation between public and military security functions.
A recent national poll by the Center for the Investigation of Public Opinion (CIOPS, Jan. 2012) indicates that 63.8% of the population favors the change in leadership of the National Civil Police (PNC) being called for by President Funes. Of those in favor of the appointment, 50.3% indicated that the change was necessary to implement new actions to reduce crime. 23.1% indicated that the last director did not obtain the desired results. 21.3% indicated that it would bring about more discipline in the PNC. At the same time, however, there is grave concern by the Salvadoran left (FMLN), social organizations and in the human rights community that Funes has put in motion the re-militarization of civilian policing, in effect, weakening a pillar of the 1992 Peace Accords. This pillar was established to separate civil policing from military functions, and for good reasons. The memory of the Salvadoran civil war (1980 – 1991) keeps the historic link between a militarized police force and massive violations of human rights at the forefront of the security debate being staged inside El Salvador and a burning issue when it comes to the Salvadoran Diaspora.
The local debate over public security in El Salvador is informed by a regional politico—military context. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are facing a genuine threat to citizen security from both gangs and international organized crime; Central America has become a major transit point for the movement of drugs from suppliers in the South to consumers to the North. In response to the increasingly transnational nature of this issue there have been several regional and multilateral efforts to share information and concretize anti-crime strategies. For example, the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the OAS have held two series of meetings, workshops and conferences on these issues. In 2007, SICA announced “the U.S. government will pursue coordinated anti-gang activities through five broad areas: diplomacy, repatriation, law enforcement, capacity enhancement, and prevention.”  This commitment to regional cooperation has been translated into a significant commitment of US resources involving a swelling number of this country’s law enforcement agencies. The US has stepped up training and the provision of technical and material assistance to their law enforcement partners in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
The case of Honduras, which has the highest homicide rate in the world, however, demonstrates that organized crime is not the only imminent threat to citizen security and democratic institutions in the region. Within a year of the June 28, 2009 coup against Honduras’ President Zelaya, Amnesty International reported that “police and military officers responsible for mass arrests, beatings and torture in the wake of the coup have not been brought to justice.” On February 14, 2012, United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya said “The pervasive impunity and absence of effective investigations of human rights violations undermine the administration of justice and damage the public’s trust in authorities.” Despite continuing impunity and allegations of mounting abuses, the Honduran Congress, last November, approved a new interpretation of the constitution that allows the executive branch to declare periods of emergency. These emergencies would permit the Honduran Army, Air force and Navy to perform civil policing functions and inexorably leads to the further compromise of the civil liberties of Honduran citizens. The devastation caused by the just witnessed Comayagua prison blaze may now bring more international attention to the urgent human rights and public security issues in Honduras.
In Guatemala, where organized crime is also a major pre-occupation of the public, ex-General Otto Perez Molina of the right wing Patriotic Party was elected president in November 2011 on a “peace and security” platform. At the same time, considerable speculation exists over the role played by Perez Molina as a junior officer in the military’s unremitting human rights campaign against the Quiche indigenous population. Guatemalan authorities have begun the prosecution of former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the Guatemalan civil war, a conflict that has claimed the lives of at least 200,000 Guatemalans dating back several decades. The public demand for more security appears to out-weigh concerns about electing an ex-General as president among a significant part of the electorate.
The US has been playing an ambiguous policy role in negotiating its own security interests in the region. The transnational nature of the gang and organized crime problem requires a transnational government response. While deploying security assistance resources to its regional partners in Central America, the US appears to be pushing back against left leaning movements calling for social and economic justice. In the case of Honduras, the US, after some cautiously correct and very mild condemnation of the coup that removed President Zelaya, ended up supporting the golpista regime. The US then recognized the subsequent election of Porfirio Lobo of the conservative National Party of Honduras to the presidency, despite ongoing and serious violations of human rights by the country’s security forces. This ambiguity makes it difficult to separate the US role of support for legitimate law enforcement efforts from the political repression routinely occurring on the ground in Honduras. US credibility as a public security partner of Honduras’ security forces also has been strained by Washington’s historic and troubled role in providing material, logistic, and advisory support for the brutal state-sponsored counter-insurgencies in Guatemala and El Salvador as well as its support for the Nicaraguan Contras during the 1980’s. All of these elements – historical, regional, and local converge to create a complicated security debate in El Salvador.
Briefly, here is how the buffer separating citizen from military security functions has been compromised in El Salvador. Between November of 2011 and January 2012, President Funes replaced several key public security and intelligence officials with retired high ranking military personnel. On November 8, Manuel Melgar, a former FMLN commander, resigned as Minister of Justice and Security and was replaced two weeks later by General David Munguia Payes, former Minister of Defense who retired in June 2011. This cabinet level position oversees the coordination of public security, including the National Civil Police (PNC). Again, it is the Minister of Defense who has been moved to the top civilian policing post in the country. The next appointment brought into view another army general. On January 23, Carlos Ascencio was replaced by General Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivera as Director of the PNC. General Rivera reportedly retired from the military just hours before his nomination. And Colonel Simon Alberto Molina Montoya (former intelligence advisor to General Payes when Payes was Secretary of Defense) was named sub-director of State Intelligence (OIE).
To be sure, not all of the recent appointees are “former” military officers. Ricardo Perdomo (former Minister of Economy, 1984-1989) was named Director of State Intelligence in January. On February 7, El Faro reported that Douglas Merino, a civilian with close ties to the FMLN and former Director of Prisons, will soon be named Vice Minister of Public Security. The big picture, however, is that the most important public security positions have gone to “retired” military generals. These actions by President Funes in fact may be in violation of the spirit, if not the letter of Salvadoran law. Both the Chapultepec Peace Accords of 1992 (Chpt. 1, no. 6a., 01-16-92) that brought the civil war there to an end and ushered in subsequent Salvadoran constitutional reforms (see Article 168.17) provide for a separation of military (national defense) from civil policing functions.
President Funes, a self styled pragmatist, denies that there is any violation of the law, stating “The Police continue under the direction of a civil authority, the public security and national defense ministries continue being assigned to different cabinet posts, just as was established under the Peace Accords.” He argues that these appointments are legal, since the generals have resigned or retired from military service, and that he is choosing the best persons for the jobs in response to a nationwide outcry for enhanced security. Perhaps the most outspoken and well known of the new appointees is General Payes who is presently trying to maximize his support base and blunt criticism of the new offensive against crime which is now being prepared.
General Payes, the new Minister of Justice and Security, promises that if he can get a national consensus, his version of an offensive against the gangs will be aimed at reducing the homicide rate by 30% by the end of 2012. Payes’ “war against crime” includes the deployment of a special anti-gang unit and the proposed streamlining of the adjudication process (through a judicial “subsystem”) to break the gang organizations’ structure as well as get the offenders off the streets. Besides the significant public support indicated by the CIOPS poll (above), Payes can count on getting strong support for his anti-crime offensive from the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP). Arnoldo Jiménez, executive director of ANEP, states: “I am gratified that these ambitious goals are being set because it is necessary to change the focus from how this issue has been treated to a more aggressive focus on combating crime.” Payes also has the backing of representatives from the ARENA, GANA (both right wing parties) and some representatives of the PDC (centrist) political parties. At his swearing in ceremony, he promised to respect the constitution, human rights, and to conduct public security, according to the civilian character mandated by the peace accords. But his suggestion some days later, that “states of exception” are under study that could be used to temporarily suspend certain civil liberties in high crime areas has raised some alarm, especially because of the abuse of such emergencies in the past. Earlier this month, President Funes exercised some damage control when he assured the public that there are no plans to decree “states of exception.” It appears that Funes wants to avoid associating the new leadership of public security with the possible suspension of civil liberties.
If national consensus is critical to the offensive against organized crime, Funes and his new security leadership also face some challenges on the left, from the social organizations, and by the human rights community. The opposition to what can be seen as new public security leadership is very much grounded in history. During the civil war (1980 – 1991) the military, the now disbanded National Police and National Guard, networks of political spies (ORDEN), and allied death squads, were jointly responsible for the large majority of the 75,000 civilians killed during the war and the tens of thousands who were displaced. For the past five years, there has been a growing movement to recover the “historic memory” of the civil war and to end the impunity for war criminals. 73.1% of respondents of the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP November 2011) poll favor the investigation of human rights abuses that occurred during the war.
Today, public opinion on the quality of law enforcement in El Salvador is complex. Since the peace accords, the army has been reformed, the notorious security forces have been disbanded, and a new National Civil Police (PNC) force, which was formed largely by former FMLN combatants and former government soldiers was established. Although the PNC has generally shown more respect for civil rights than was the case of the wartime security forces, confidence in the PNC is firmly tempered by the periodic revelations of police corruption and some reported human rights abuses. A recent poll (January 2012 CIOPS) indicates that the army is now the source of more public confidence than the PNC.
Despite the post-civil war reforms of both the civil and military security agencies, there are still deeply rooted and legally supported concerns over military leadership of public security branches. The response of the FMLN, the leftist party on whose ticket Funes ran as president, has been critical though somewhat measured. The FMLN has refrained from direct attacks on the integrity or character of General Payes and its disagreement with Funes on this appointment, to the surprise of more than a few, has not been translated into a major campaign of opposition. An FMLN communiqué expressed concerns that “the naming of General Salinas is one step towards the dismantling of the democratic and civil doctrine of public security; it openly violates the Peace Accords and the Constitution….” La Prensa Graphica reported that the Secretary General of the FMLN, Medardo Gonzalez, “said the decision taken by the President of the Republic, Mauricio Funes may be dangerous and give rise to a return to the past, referring to the time of armed conflict.” The critique from the left then, is focused on the appointment of military persons (though “retired”) to civilian security positions as a violation of the Peace Accords.
At a January 30 press conference in El Salvador, several Salvadoran non-governmental “social” organizations concerned with human rights and social justice issues also weighed in against the new security regime. These organizations expressed concerns that such moves undermine democracy, bring increased violence to the most vulnerable sectors of the population, and do not focus sufficiently on rehabilitation and prevention. They urge that the state seek to focus more on the social and economic conditions that precipitate gang recruitment. They also maintain that “the participation of the armed forces in public security over the past two years has not diminished the number of offenses.”
A sector of the academic community has also come out against the appointments. The University of Central America “José Simeón Cañas” (UCA) issued a statement in which it shared the same concerns as the social organizations and stated that a war against crime, with its exercise of a “state of exception” could result in a scenario similar to that of Mexico where violence has spun out of control and human rights violations escalated. North American organizations concerned with social and economic justice in El Salvador, such as WOLA, SHARE, COHA, and CISPES, also have echoed the concerns of the Salvadoran left, human rights and social organizations.
The new appointments may also face some legal challenges. On February 10, a judge of the “Quinto de Instrucción interino de San Salvador” (similar to the level of a US circuit court), Samuel Aliven Lizama, nullified the legal process against a detainee charged with resisting arrest, reportedly on the ground that the naming of the new Director of Police (PNC), Francisco Salinas is “unconstitutional”. The detainee was therefore freed. This judge’s action may be an aberration, or it may be the first of more challenges by the judicial branch of government.
El Salvador now finds itself at a number of crossroads. During the same period in which President Funes commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Peace Accords at the site of the worst massacre committed by an army brigade (El Mozote, December 11, 1981), he appears to have violated the spirit if not the letter of one of the very conditions in that accord designed to ensure that such crimes against humanity do not again happen. Robbed of a convincing argument that these particular appointments were necessary to undertake the offensive against the crime surge in the country, what political calculus could have motivated Funes to decide to take on these controversial moves? One theory is that Funes succumbed to US pressure. The newspaper El Faro reported (Nov. 8, 2011) that “the administration of Barack Obama pressured the government of Funes that it would not sign the crucial Partnership for Growth if Melgar continued in his cabinet.” The Partnership for Growth provides US funding for the US government to “work with the government of El Salvador to professionalize and reform police, prosecutors, judges, and security personnel; reduce crimes involving small and medium enterprises; and protect Salvadorans from crime on public transportation systems.” This program, in tandem with The Central America Regional Security Initiative, provides significant security-related funding along with technical assistance to El Salvador. The external pressure theory, however, is flatly denied by Funes. Whatever Funes’ motivations are, there is some evidence based on hearsay and a wiki leaks cable that the US wanted some public security leader(s) connected with the FMLN to be removed from office; but there is no convincing evidence that the intended policy aims of the US involved ex-military appointments to civilian security posts.
The political costs of the incipient re-militarization of civil society and public security in El Salvador will be played out against the back drop of a democracy in real peril. The re-examination of the historic role of the army and the security forces; the spreading of international organized crime into Central America; the regional threat to democratic institutions by oligarchic forces which seek to conserve their economic and social hegemony; and the US push back against the left, are all interwoven features of the contemporary debate. Given this series of subtexts, popular support for the new military security state is probably not sustainable and the restoration of civilian leadership over civil policing may be the only way to reliably safeguard this very fledgling democracy.
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Frederick Mills is a COHA Senior Research Fellow